Shortly before midnight, I crawled into bed and pulled the comforter up to my chin. The sea breeze billowed the curtains. Other than the drone of the wind and an occasional squawk from a gull, silence. Blackness finally erased an indigo sky. On the northern coast of France in late May, the sun sets past 10. I was exhausted, but too excited to sleep.
For years, I’ve seen photos of Mont Saint Michel and stored it in my mental bucket list. In 1979, UNESCO named it a world heritage site. But there were always reasons why going was a bad idea: An unwieldy day trip from Paris. Scarce and expensive lodging. Tourist bloat.
And the statistics bore out my concerns. While fewer than 50 people—half of them monks—reside on the tidal island, another 2.5 million visitors trek there annually. Difficult to get there? Sure. But as much as anything, I was kept away by imagined hordes of tourists. A tourist avoiding tourists. Yes. I realize the irony in this.
Then in the spring, I planned a trip to Dinan, France with an excursion to Mont Saint Michel. After flipping innumerable mental coins between staying on the island (at 300 euro for a room with terrible TripAdvisor ratings), staying on the much more affordable coast near the island, or day tripping from Dinan, I decided we would day trip. It sounded harder than it was: a bus from Dinan to Rennes, a second from Rennes to Mont Saint Michel mainland, and a shuttle out to the island. We would reverse this route back to Rennes in order to catch the evening TGV to Paris.
I would brave the crowds.
Then two days before our trip, I found a last-minute rate at La Mère Poulard. 100 euros. The cheapest I’d seen. One final flip of the coin; I booked it. We left Dinan a day earlier than planned. It was nearing 6 when the shuttle dropped us on the middle of the bridge.
Historically, the island has been just that, an island. Then, in the late 1800s, a causeway road was built which resulted in a silty arm connecting the island back to the coastline of Normandy. In 2014, after 10 years of construction, a low and more environmentally friendly bridge replaced the causeway, after which man and the tides began the process of removing the connection, gradually reverting Mont Saint Michel to an island once again.
Yet even before this conversion, Mont Saint Michel stood divorced from its mainland—a 1300-year-old abbey and medieval island versus a collection of Wally Worldesque B&Bs, restaurants, and trinket shops. Night. Day.
As we made our way over, shuttles returned from the island overflowing with tourists. Ours carried 3 lone couples and the sweet smell of vindication. My gaze alternated between reviewing the directions on how to find our hotel and the jagged island looming closer and closer out the front window. The grand dame was every bit as majestic as her picture. And as is almost always the case when I finally see something I’ve dreamed of for years, I had tears in my eyes.
The shuttle dropped us a few hundred yards from the island. As we climbed the ramparts onto the ancient streets, night flipped to day.
Mont Saint Michel was more intimate than I expected, more ancient, more charming. Almost immediately, we found our hotel, checked in, dropped our bags into a perfectly serviceable room, and set off to explore.
But first, dinner.
On the main floor of La Mère Poulard is the restaurant of the same name. Photos of every sort of politician and celebrity who had eaten there, from Winston Churchill to the Queen of England, Robert Capa to Ernst Hemingway, reeled us in. A massive roaring fireplace was stacked with hand-hammered copper skillets attached to 6 foot long handles, cooking the famous souffléed omelette for a handful of diners. We decided to splurge on a holy-cow-34-euro-for-an-omelet omelet with a side order of history. Two omelets, two glasses of wine, nothing else. I’m glad we did it. Once.
Madame Poulard created this omelet in the late 1800s when pilgrims trudged over to the schedule of the tides, needing a fast and filling meal made from minimal ingredients easily hauled from the mainland. It caught on and nearly 150 years later, eponymous La Mère Poulard is synonymous with Mont Saint Michel.
After dinner, we strolled the narrow streets, stopped at the small Saint-Pierre church, and exited the far door to peek at the cemetery and gain our first up-close view of the abbey. It was impossible to get lost on the island. A single road looped around the base in either direction. In an hour, we had exhausted our sightseeing in total peace. The next morning, we would attack the climb up up up to the abbey.
That evening, with the tide at its lowest, Pat and I walked on the sand to the back of the island, scouting the best vantage point from which to take a sunset photograph. On the furthest back side, we discovered a tiny chapel. I’d seen dozens of photos of Mont Saint Michel, but I’d never seen this. It felt like a secret. We dawdled until we noticed the drooping sun and dashed back to the front, set up, and Pat took this photo.
Ten or twenty people milled about, predominately couples. iPhones lifted. Arms casually draped over shoulders. Heads tilted until they touched. Silence as the sun fell and the light dimmed. We weren’t alone, but close enough. As the sun slipped below the horizon, a gentle rain started to fall. We returned to our hotel room, and I climbed into bed.
The next morning, we woke early, ate a makeshift breakfast of foods I had brought with us, and went to see the abbey. We waited at the gate with 2 other couples. Together, we walked the one-way route through stark and Gothic rooms and chatted. We lingered in the 11th century Romanesque church.
Mont Saint Michel was created in the 8th century when a monk had a vision directing him to build this abbey. After centuries of unimaginable and onerous construction, the abbey emerged as one of the most important Christian pilgrimage sites. The island built up in support of the population of monks and their associated pilgrims, accommodating the need for food and lodging. Some sold keep-sake trinkets as a reminder to the faithful of their pilgrimage.
One could argue that the mission of this island is fundamentally unchanged from what it was over the last thousand years. It is, and always has been, a site that welcomes people from around the world. They gawk and buy trinkets. Some eat an omelet. Others say a prayer. They talk about the experience for the rest of their lives.
It was amazing. And yes, I’m glad we spent the night.